Revisiting Nepal's Palace Massacre

  • Share
  • Read Later

A holy man blesses former King Gyanendra of Nepal, center, and crown prince Paras, right, on the king's 60th birthday in Kathmandu on July 7, 2006

It's a story worthy of Shakespearean tragedy, populated by characters plucked from a farce. There is the beloved monarch, magnanimous and complacent. There is the moody crown prince. There is the prince's cousin, a playboy with a belly and a ponytail, who after years of silence professes alone to know the truth of his royal family's demise. And in the background are the Maoists, once guerrillas, now rulers, keen to spin this whole set piece to their political advantage.

Nepal's palace massacre in 2001 — when crown prince Dipendra allegedly gunned down 10 members of his own family, including his father, King Birendra Shah, before shooting himself — has for the most part receded into memory in this impoverished Himalayan nation. Since then, a Maoist rebellion found its way into power, transformed the kingdom into a republican democracy and abolished the monarchy altogether last year. Yet the current government, headed by the former rebels, still indulges in periodic bouts of royal-bashing, often to paper over the increasingly apparent shortcomings of its own rule. As fuel lines in Kathmandu stretch more than 2 km and power cuts ravage the country, the Maoists announced last month their intention to form a commission to revisit the massacre eight years after it happened, tightening the screw on the lingering survivors of the 250-year-old monarchy. (See pictures of Nepal's Maoist camps.)

That decision has put some of the chief remaining royals on the defensive. Though investigations in the immediate aftermath of the attack closed the case, pinning the blame on an emotional Prince Dipendra, most Nepalis never quite accepted the accession of Birendra's businessman brother, Gyanendra, to the throne, and balked at his son Paras becoming crown prince. Paras is known chiefly for his penchant for fast cars and liquor, often in combination. But last week he titillated the nation by leaking to a tabloid in Singapore — where he now lives in a luxury home — alleged proof of how his cousin Dipendra had secretly plotted the murder for years, in what could shape up to be a bid to distance himself from the government's renewed scrutiny of the massacre and any possible arrest, now that he is no longer officially royalty. (Read what 10 of the world's former monarchs are up to.)

The established narrative of the tragedy suggests Dipendra was in a drunken fury, irate that his father and family continued to disapprove of his relationship with a woman from a rival clan of nobles. It was supposedly a crime of passion and intoxication — but Paras told Singapore's New Paper: "There was no smell of alcohol on [Dipendra]." According to Paras, the crown prince had intended to take down his popular father ever since Birendra relinquished absolute power after pro-democracy protests in 1990. The loss of that political mandate was made worse for Dipendra after his father scuttled an arms deal with a German riflemaker that could have yielded the prince a windfall of over $1 million. "That was the real trigger," claimed Paras, though former aides to the monarchy have denied such a transaction was ever in the works.

In yet another new twist, Paras also told the New Paper he may return to Nepal and participate in electoral politics, heading up a party of "young professionals and bankers." But it seems unlikely the deeply unpopular 37-year-old — an embodiment, for many, of royal excess — would gain much from such a venture. "That's what everyone in Nepal is laughing about," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, a Kathmandu-based weekly. "It's remarkable how quickly people here have otherwise forgotten the monarchy," he says.

The Maoists, though, who waged a decade-long war against the royal army, have not forgotten so easily. A recent trip to India by Gyanendra, who lives quietly in a private residence in the capital, prompted howls of outrage from members of the government who are wary of his dealings with Nepal's influential southern neighbor. The Maoists, observers say, need to raise the specter of royalist nefariousness to boost their own flagging support. "They need to create a sense of threat, of a larger enemy, to distract the people from their failings," says Dixit.

Those failings include the nine-month-old government's inability to provide much-needed development, from infrastructure to energy. This year, Kathmandu has suffered routine 17-hour power cuts, which have led to a drying up of foreign investment. Enduring fuel shortages have sent commodities' prices soaring, and the financial downturn has led thousands of overseas workers — whose remittances comprise some 16% of the national GDP — to return home unemployed. National security has also deteriorated, partly as a consequence of the government's failure to integrate the roughly 30,000-strong Maoist rebel army, still quartered in remote camps throughout the country, with the formerly royalist state forces. Some frustrated Maoist commanders have even called for the overthrow of their own democratic government.

In the face of all this, few in Kathmandu expect much from the inquiry into the royal family's murder. Many other questions remain unanswered from Nepal's decade-long civil war. More than 13,000 people died, many of them civilians, at the hands of both rebel and government soldiers. But neither the Maoists nor elements of the old royalist regime have heeded calls to investigate charges of war crimes. "Not a single case has been prosecuted so far," says Manjushree Thapa, author of Forget Kathmandu, an award-winning history of the conflict. "As ever," she says, "we Nepalis are not used to finding out the truth."

Read more TIME stories about Nepal.

See TIME's pictures of the week.